Translated into English, this dessert is called: Bread of the Sultan’s palace or seraglio. The sultan referred to is the Turkish one, from the Ottoman period and the seraglio is a reference to the harem’s quarters. I am told that this dish is Lebanese which makes sense considering Lebanon was under Ottoman rule for four hundred years. When you taste this dish, you will understand why the name is so fitting. The bread is doused and cooked in a caramel syrup until it is totally imbibed in syrup, the clotted cream or ashta sits majestically on top of the bread and one bite will make you wish you lived in the Sultan’s palace among the cadines (wives of the Sultan) or kalfas ( ladies in waiting)
Incidentally, I read a book called De la Part de la princesse morte, by Kenizé Mourad (tran. From the departed princess), that had a lasting impression on me. It is a true story written by the daughter of an Ottoman princess and recounts the last years of the Empire, the exile of the imperial family to Beirut and the marriage of the princess to an Indian Maharajah and her subsequent escape to Paris. A fascinating story that I read several times until this past summer when it really hit a personal note; I became friends with one of my dad’s nieces whose mother had been Turkish. This niece revealed to me that her grandmother had been the cousin of this Ottoman princess (whose book the story is about) and that she had in her possession a trunk full of letters, diaries and mementos from the Ottoman family!
This dessert is simple to make and although rich it has neither eggs nor butter; the components can be assembled at different times and the dish prepared a few minutes before serving. It is usually prepared and served for a party in a large platter but I wanted to tailor it to individual servings instead.
I consulted Anissa Helou’s book Lebanese Cuisine for the recipe, but adapted the quantities; and for good measure, I also consulted Nada Saleh Seductive Flavours of the Levant, who uses a slightly different technique.
- 1 round loaf white bread or 20 slices sandwich bread, crusts cut off (use the bread crumbs if you are making individual servings, it is easier to manage)
- 9 ounces sugar (1 1/4 cups)
- 4 ounces water
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon of orange blossom water
- 1 tablespoon of rose water
- 2 cups of ashta (recipe follows) OR ricotta cheese (whole-milk or light version)
- 1 cup or more of pistachios
Preparing the bread:
- If you are using a whole bread, you will cut off the crust on all sides and place the bread in a pan that fits its size. The thickness of the bread should be about one inch (2 1/2 cms) If you are using sandwich bread, use a food processor (or your hands) to obtain small pieces or medium-sized crumbs and place in the dish of your choice.
- Place the sugar, water and fresh lemon juice in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring to a boil and let it boil for about 15 minutes stirring, until the caramel takes on a pretty golden-brown color.
- Right before the caramel takes on that color, boil around one cup of water in a teakettle nearby. When the sugar is the color you want, place the saucepan in the sink, and while holding your face safely away from the pan, start adding very slowly the boiling water. Be very careful to avoid getting burned.
- If using a whole bread, place the bread in the pan and cook it in the caramel until the caramel is absorbed. If using breadcrumbs, place them over the caramel and let the breadcrumbs absorb the caramel and cool, cooking them if necessary over low-medium heat, or in the oven till absorbed.
Preparing the clotted cream:
Homemade clotted cream or ashta:
- 2 cups half-and-half or a mixture of milk and whipping cream
- 2 slices of sandwich bread
- 2 heaping tablespoons of cornstarch mixed with 3 tablespoons water
- 2 teaspoons orange blossom water and 2 teaspoons rose water
- Cut off the crusts of the bread and cut in small dice or pieces.
- Place the half-and-half and the bread on medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring frequently.
- After about 10 minutes, the bread will have dissolved into crumbs and started melding into the cream. Continue stirring until it is steaming. At this point, add the cornstarch and water mixture and stirring constantly let the mixture thicken for one or two minutes. Add the flavored waters and stir about 30 seconds more.
- Cool the ashta.
Fast and easy method using ricotta cheese :
- Add to the ricotta cheese the orange blossom water and the rose water, beating slightly with a fork. Use as you would the clotted cream. Use 2 cups of ricotta cheese.
FINAL ASSEMBLY OF THE DISH:
- Place the caramel-soaked bread (or crumbs) in the dish or ramequins that you selected, tapping gently to even out the top surface.
- Cover the bread with a generous layer of cream or ricotta cheese. Place in the fridge for thirty minutes or so.
- Cover the top creamy layer with finely chopped pistachios. Do not substitute any other nuts, if you want to stick to the traditional dessert.
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